Pat Ferns: The father of independent production

He's been called a visionary and an apostle, the father of independent production and the godfather of coproduction - even a frustrated thespian!...

He’s been called a visionary and an apostle, the father of independent production and the godfather of coproduction – even a frustrated thespian!

But with typical self-effacement, Pat Ferns simply says he is grateful for the friendship of many close associates including his mentor and friend, Richard Nielsen, with whom he marched into the void of independent production in 1972; for having what he perceives to be the best job in television as president and ceo of the Banff Television Foundation; and for the opportunity to give back to the Canadian television community, through initiatives like his internationally applauded Market Simulations.

Ferns’ accomplishments over a 30-year career are legendary. They include lobbying alongside Nielsen to get cbc to accept independent production, the creation of the point system in the 1970s, the Broadcast Fund in the 1980s, and the Cable Fund in the 1990s, an idea that had its start as notes scribbled on a napkin over lunch with Rogers Communications vice-chair, Phil Lind.

These initiatives and the infrastructure they spawned helped Canadian independent producers create truly independent programs.

Ferns summarizes: ‘If you take the point system, which defined a Canadian program and still does, that’s the fundamental protection you need, in terms of being overrun by other people’s programming. You add an investment program with a broadcast fund that was directed at television [which is where the audience is], then you get private broadcasters and the cable industry to give back through another fund, which enables you to leverage up the level of licence fees that a small market allows. Your programming can reflect Canadian realities and you don’t have to give in to whoever’s putting up the most amount of money.’

Then he downplays it all with a chuckle: ‘There’s a whole bunch of firsts, because nobody else had done that yet,’ he says. ‘It all sounds like it was hugely successful, but I was much better at making programs than making money.’

Among those programs were creative milestones with Nielsen-Ferns Ltd., like the first Canadian tv movie, Heaven on Earth (written by Margaret Atwood) to air on Masterpiece Theatre, and the first Canadian miniseries, Passion and Paradise, to be broadcast on an American commercial network.

Through all the ups and downs, Ferns’ survival instinct, hard work and love of what he does kept him going. ‘I think having spent 25 years as an independent producer – that’s a 25-year sentence with no time off for good behavior – you have to work hard to survive.’

Surviving also meant lots of European travel, beginning in the 1970s when he and Nielsen ran their company. London was a frequent stop and functioned as a ‘backdoor’ to the u.s. ‘I think there was a period where I was in London every six weeks,’ he remembers. ‘If you actually phone up all your contacts every time you’re there, they think you live in London, because they hear more from you than they do from their other contacts.’

His peripatetic lifestyle combined with the people-oriented tv business, exercised Ferns’ great talent for relationships and team building. ‘I always felt we were in a business that was based on relationships and therefore to sustain relationships you have to give them time.’ Ferns kept in touch with everyone, ultimately developing his internationally awe-inspiring Rolodex.

After he left television production, those contacts helped Ferns grow the Banff Television Festival. ‘You had to make the choice to be really international and so I’d bring in all my international contacts to the festival. It wasn’t a case of trying to keep them for myself. I always felt that any deal that happened internationally was good for the whole industry and for the credibility of who we were.

‘You have to have a kind of inclusive and collaborative spirit to survive if you’re from a smaller country in terms of population. I just built a huge family of friends and contacts by trying to include people.’

It was from Europe that Ferns got the idea for his famous Market Simulations.

‘Like all good ideas, I stole it,’ he laughs. ‘I read an account of something that happened in Edinburgh. It was a festival where there were British executives pretending to be American, pretending to be French, or pretending to be German and a pretend project. Everything seemed quite comical and amusing. I thought, well at Banff we actually have the real German executives…we actually have real independents with real projects. Why don’t we see whether people will be honest and frank if you pitch to them?’

What began in 1985 as an educational exercise, showing participants how to structure a coproduction, has turned into a platform to give new producers an opportunity to be heard by some of the most influential players – and buyers – in the business. Along the way, Ferns has gone from creating independent productions and the infrastructure to support them, to providing fertile ground for the work of future independent producers.

So what’s next? ‘Our strategy now, and what’s reinvigorated me, is the notion of getting into event management,’ says Ferns. In December, the Banff Foundation will manage the second year of the World Congress of Science Producers in Sydney, Australia, and in fall 2001, will launch the inaugural World Congress of History Producers in Boston.

Ferns says they are trying to create events for communities which have expressed a need to gather and talk with their peers. The information the Banff Foundation will gather about the needs of these various groups will feed back into its festival programs.

The Banff Foundation is also expanding into leadership training, with the phenomenal success of its first Alliance Atlantis Banff Television Executive Program this year. According to Ferns, the event is an intensive, one-week, industry-focused leadership experience, and may soon be spun off internationally. ‘We’ve got a lot of stuff to do,’ he says.

Ferns probably won’t have much time to strum his old 12-string guitar, a remnant of his student days as a Cambridge University folk musician. But he did have the piano tuned recently. ‘Probably I’m a frustrated performer, so maybe that’s what the Market Simulation has become,’ he chuckles. ‘People keep coming up afterward and saying, ‘Pat, why aren’t you doing a television show?’ and I say, ‘Nobody’s asked!’ Maybe one day.’ *

A Tribute to Pat Ferns continues on p. 30 with comments from Ferns’ friends and colleagues.